You’re Selfish!


So I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I wanted to put it to all of you, awesome readers, to discuss.

Is “selfish” really an objective measure, or is it, as I believe, “in the eye of the beholder”?

Consider the following fictional scenario:

Bob works at a department store in stock. This means that he spends his working days lifting and moving light to heavy boxes for hours on end, then has to help with inventory after the store’s closed for the day.

Bob’s roommate, Bill, also has a job in the same department store, but as a cashier.

This set-up was always weird because Bill suffers from social anxiety and doesn’t really like people, while Bob is an extrovert and loves hanging out and being social.

On Black Friday, Bill was scheduled at 7am to open the store (which opens at 9), but got to go home at 3pm. Bob wasn’t scheduled to go in until 5pm (the third stock shift), but didn’t get off until after midnight.

Of course, being Black Friday, it was not a fun day for anyone working by any measure. Bill dealt with terrible customers, had to lift more than his fair-share of heavy TVs and stereos, had to break up a fight between four people over the last iPad Mini, had to pick up the slack from a co-worker who quit in tears only an hour and a half after the store opened, and even fell off a ladder at one point, though without any serious or otherwise problematic injuries.

Bob, of course, was working stock, so he didn’t really have to deal with customers. He did, however, have to deal with a pretty severe accident when a new stock-person knocked into an already precariously-stacked mountain of clothes boxes. Bob managed to save both the new guy and himself from serious harm, and nobody else working stock got harmed, as well, but that mountain had to be cleaned up, which delayed the emptying of a last-minute truck delivery, made last-minute by the manager who was supposed to place the orders quitting without telling anybody that they hadn’t placed the orders just a week ago, and nobody checking until two days later. On top of that, the stock team was short one person because one of their stock people was a no-call, no-show.

Bill got off at 3 and set aside a big-screen TV he planned on picking up later when the Black Friday hysteria died down. He came back to get it at 10, which was right around when the store closed, paid for his TV, and took it home before hitting the local pub.

When Bob finally got home at 12:30am, Bill was at least a little buzzed and trying to open the new big-screen TV he had bought. Bill asked Bob for help, but Bob, who’s feet and back were killing him and who was so tired he could barely drive home as it was, said “leave it ’til tomorrow”, went straight to his room, and passed out.

Bill muttered under his breath that Bob was selfish, and proceeded to open the box and set up the TV alone.

So who was being selfish? I personally would immediately say that it was actually Bill who was being selfish, since Bob clearly has the harder job. And yet Bob was actually scheduled an hour less than Bill, and while Bill definitely has a generally easier job, there are other factors to take into account: Social Anxiety is not a small thing and can be ridiculously draining on a person. I can say this from personal experience. I’ve had anxiety attacks just from being social. It really isn’t easy if you’re an introvert.

I’m not saying it has the same effects on you as back-breaking physical work would have, but it can still be exhausting and leave you wanting help.

But then again, why couldn’t Bill have left the TV for the next day and just gone to bed? Maybe he and Bob could have made a game out of it the next day, then sit back and pop a couple cold ones while enjoying their new TV. Yet Bill was insistent on getting it set up then and there.

I get considered selfish a lot because I really don’t like mingling with people and such. I don’t really want to go parties or talk to people and so on. But extroverts consider me selfish.

But my question is… aren’t they the ones being selfish? Aren’t they the ones trying to force their ideas and plans and whatnot on me?

I’m pretty convinced that selfishness is in the eye of the beholder. I know that before I immediately judge someone as selfish, I try to take the situation into stock, and consider the context. Because… honestly… it may really be me who’s being selfish… although, yes, sometimes it is them being selfish.

And yet by what measure do I, or anyone, judge that?

Here’s a thought… maybe the very act of judging other people to be selfish is inherently selfish inandof itself, because you can only ever judge someone as selfish in relation to you. They are selfish either because they did something you would never do, or because they wouldn’t do something with you, or because they wouldn’t share something with you. But it’s always about you.

So what is “selfish”, then? Is it even a meaningful term? And if so, how do we make it less subjective? Can that even be done?

I turn it over to you, readers. What do you think?

*Heh… CaitieCat was right. Thank you! I did get the name’s crossed in the story. I’m pretty sure it’s fixed, now, to line up with my commentary and with comments, but y’all should let me know…

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4 Responses to You’re Selfish!

  1. I think there’s a difference between self-care and selfishness. Bob didn’t say he was unwilling to help with the tv entirely, just that he needed to rest and would help the next day. Bob may know from past experience that if he starts a big task when he’s overtired he’s more likely to be unable to focus and make mistakes, which would have made setting up the tv much more frustrating for the both of them.
    Bill, on the other hand, doesn’t seem willing to consider that Bob just got off work and hasn’t had the afternoon to rest. He only sees his immediate desire. Which, lets be honest, isn’t exactly life-or-death. It’s a tv. It’ll be there in the morning to work on, which Bob said he would do. I think all the factors make Bill the one acting selfish in this story, which he is also projecting onto Bob.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot actually, in the context of many years of therapy. You’ve stumbled onto the same conundrum I wrestled with (and still do albeit to a lesser extent). One problem lies in the definition(s). Here’s Merriam-Webster:
    1. concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.
    2. arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others .

    “Selfish” is meant to be derogatory, but these definitions apply in a positive way to the actions of people who are for example ambitious, extremely focused on personal or professional goals, or highly competitive. Is someone who goes away to a distant medical school and ignores family traditions (doesn’t visit on holidays, doesn’t call mom often, doesn’t send birthday gifts, etc.) “selfish”? Mom might say so. But isn’t it the height of absurdity to call someone selfish for not doing what you want them to do? Hey, you’re not giving me what I want right now! Waaah! You’re sooo selfish! It’s ridiculous on its face.

    It’s like your friends Bill and Bob. Bob is exhausted and in pain to the point that he can barely drive home, and he feels an overwhelming, urgent need to lie down flat and go to sleep immediately. We’ve all been there. He is saying in essence “I’m sorry dude, I would be happy to help you with this tomorrow but I really need to take care of myself right now.” Is that “selfish”? Well, yeah, technically, according to the above definitions anyway. But it is also undeniably healthy for Bob to do this, both physically and psychologically. He’s drawing a necessary boundary around taking care of himself when he feels he needs to, and enforcing it. If that’s selfish, it’s selfish in a very positive way.

    Now, if Bill’s request wasn’t about wrestling with a heavy TV, but instead Bob found Bill pinned under it and bleeding and marched off to bed saying it would have to wait for tomorrow, that would be a very different story. Anyone would gather the wherewithal to help another human being in that situation, often even at significant cost to oneself. Helping Bill would be a no-brainer, and it would be despicably, inexcusably selfish for Bob to refuse to do so.

    But shouldn’t people who (say they) care about you want you to take care of yourself when you need to? Shouldn’t they trust you to know better than they do what you need in order to be happy and healthy—even if they’re disappointed that you’re not living up to their personal desires and expectations?

    In my experience, people who call you selfish for drawing and enforcing reasonable and necessary boundaries for your own wellbeing are the ones really being selfish (and manipulative), and further, they are never, ever satisfied with what you give them anyway. It’s an endless stream of escalating demands, entitlement, manipulation and guilt. With family members who fit this bill, it’s been very healthy for me to limit and minimize my exposure, and/or have someone I trust with me so their behavior is not as extreme as it is when I’m alone with them one-on-one.

    OMFG this is long—I’m sorry! But I would be remiss if I did not at least mention that women and girls especially are socialized to put others’ needs above their own (though children of any gender can be socialized this way by a selfish and manipulative parent). It isn’t right, it isn’t healthy, and it’s a perfect recipe for making someone an easy target for abuse. It’s also exceedingly difficult to overcome, especially in a family culture that prizes martyrdom of this sort for women and has no respect whatsoever for healthy, “selfish” boundaries drawn by them.

    Maybe we just need different words, because finally learning to be “selfish” has been a very healing experience for me.

  3. CaitieCat says:

    I think you got the names crossed in the para starting “Of course, being Black Friday…”
    For me, “selfish” is when you refuse to do something which would be low cost for you, that would help someone for whom it would be high cost.
    So, say Bill is physically disabled. He uses a pair of canes to get around, and has a special chair for his cashier job. He brings the TV home, a present for their household, and Bob won’t help him set it up. At all. Not tonight, not tomorrow. Despite that Bill helps him with the things he’s good at and which Bob sucks at, consistently.
    For me, Bill is being selfish here. I think this grows from my general Marxist approach to the world: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Refusing to help someone in your social in-group with a favour that you could do much more easily than they, and when they unstintingly help you or others, that seems selfish to me.
    Now I can think of several things that make that relative, too, but that’s the general principle on which I base such decisions, if I’m required to give an answer.
    But really, the question is, is there ever any real value in passing such a negative judgement on someone? Given I think it can really only apply within one’s social groups (otherwise, whence the obligation?), what gain is there from calling one’s socialmate selfish? It’s not going to make the TV more likely to be unwrapped. I think this kind of negative judgement is, itself, a selfish act, because there’s no value gained from performing it: it’s simply negative, is unlikely to provide any positive motivation – and is selfishness-shaming really going to help cure someone of being selfish? If the person is going to behave in such a way, is calling them selfish going to accomplish anything positive? No.
    Where judgement of others’ selfishness can be useful is only internally, when one is deciding how closely to be social with this person. But there can be little gain from externalizing that judgement, IMO.
    Interesting question.

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